Consciousness, panpsychism, and AGI: What is it like to be a hat?

What if consciousness isn't all about the brain?

BEN GOERTZEL: Consciousness is one of these great vexing and confusing words and concepts, which intelligent people take different positions on and could argue about forever. My own perspective on consciousness is rooted in what you could call a sort of panpsychism, by which I mean the idea that consciousness is in essence a property eminent in existence, as much as space and time are. I mean everything that we see around us somehow is situated in time and in space, in our space-time continuum; panpsychism is the idea that everything around us and within us has some element of consciousness to it also, so that it's not really meaningful to think of: 'Here's this non-conscious matter and then there's this thing called consciousness, which is attached to some matter and not to others.' Now panpsychism to me is not even that interesting, it's almost obvious — it's just the foundation, the beginning for thinking about consciousness because then you have interesting questions like why is the consciousness associated with my brain so much more self-reflective and dynamic and in some senses intense than, say, the consciousness associated with my hat? I mean, it's a cool hat, it may be more conscious than the average hat, but in the end the brain has these complex feedback loops, the brain can model itself, the brain responds very differently to slightly different stimuli coming in and many properties of the brain seem associated with the more powerful and dynamic states of consciousness that it has relative to other things. So, if you accept panpsychism, that everything is imbued somehow with an element of consciousness, some things can still be more conscious than others and some things are differently conscious than others. And then that's where things get interesting.

When you talk about AI — so I would imagine if I were able to tap a wire into my brain or wi-fi connection into my brain and wire my brain into your brain, then as I increase the bandwidth of that wire between my brain and your brain, I would feel your mind there on the fringe of my mind, like almost as if we were fusing into one shared mind or something. That would be a bit freakish, it could be a lot of fun. But on the other hand, if I took my mind and wired it into my hat, I might feel what it is to be a hat, but I would imagine that whatever consciousness I feel on the other end of the wire, it's not going to be quite the same as a melding my mind with the mind of another human; it's going to be melding my mind with something that doesn't change very much or have much variety to its state. On the other hand, what if we think of Sophia version 10.0 with her mind enhanced by the SingularityNET blockchain-based AGI mind cloud — what if I wire my brain into that? Does it feel like wiring my brain into a human brain? Does it feel like wiring my brain into a hat or a brick or an earthworm? These would be very interesting experiments to do and they're even scientific in the sense that they could be audited by the community. If I wired my brain into my hat and then I said, 'Well I don't feel too much of the hat's consciousness there, just a little', you could wire your brain into that wire and then view what is the fused state of myself and the hat. Or if I wired my brain into super Sophia and I said 'Wow that's a really intense state of consciousness, now I feel what it's like to be a robot' and it's amazing you've got sensors all over the globe, it's like a DMT trip to the 10th power. You could wire your brain into that wire and like look in on that subjectively and think 'Whoa yeah, I can feel on the fringes of my consciousness like there's Ben some Sophia SingularityNET super mind, which are fusing together in an intensely conscious way.'

So this is what I think of as second-person science because it's a little different than just first-person experience that others can't audit, except indirectly through words or pictures or something. It's also different than typical third-person science where you're concerned with spreadsheets of numbers that are read out from the dials of experiments and so forth. It's sort of scientific community-based auditing of shared experience among different entities. And I think this is going to unfold in the next decades as brain-computer interfacing and brain-brain interfacing technology mature beyond their current significant but still early stage. And this is probably how we're going to really crack the nut of consciousness and see in what sense does panpsychism make sense and what sense are humans differently conscious than different types of computer systems and so forth.

  • Panpsychism is the idea that there is an element of consciousness in everything in the universe. The theory goes like this: You're conscious. Ben Goertzel is conscious. And his hat is conscious too. What if consciousness isn't about the brain at all, but it's as inherent to our universe as space-time?
  • "Now, panpsychism, to me, is not even that interesting, it's almost obvious — it's just the foundation, the beginning for thinking about consciousness... " says Goertzel. It's what comes after that excites him, like the emerging technology that will let us connect our minds to bricks, hats, earthworms, other humans, and super AGIs like Sophia, and perhaps glimpse at the fabric of consciousness.
  • Goertzel believes brain-brain interfacing and brain-computer interfacing will unfold in the coming decades, and it's by that means that we may finally crack the nut of consciousness to discover whether panpsychism makes any sense, and to learn why humans are so differently conscious than, for example, his hat.


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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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